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The Emotions of Sound: Our Relationship with Our Hearing

Human beings associate sounds they hear with intense emotions. Sound can illicit feelings of anxiety, elation, love, melancholy, and joy.

While some reactions may seem obvious (bees = RUN!) others may not be so. For example, a baby cooing may arouse love, warmth, sadness, or even annoyance.

While a concerto, a crying infant, a faraway scream, or even silence may all hold distinctive emotional associations in our mind, we reconstruct these sounds from our own experiences of hearing them in order to distinguish exactly what we ought to perceive. This means that everybody has their own individual emotional and physical relationship to each sound. How does this work?

The Science (And Emotion) of Sound

Scientists have recently discovered why sounds trigger such strong emotional responses. A study using rats suggests that the part of your brain responsible for processing your sense is the same part used to store strong emotional memories. These findings are still relatively new, but do suggest that these sensory brain regions may be instrumental in some fear and anxiety disorders. Dysfunction in these brain regions could make it difficult for a person to delineate between sights, sounds, and other stimuli that should and should not cause fear. This could potentially lead to a state of generalized fear and anxiety.

In the experiments with the rats, it was found that the cortices of your brain that stores these sensory memories will only store them if they are tied to a strong emotion. The experiment involved playing specific sounds and shocking one group of rats when the sound was played. A month later, the non – shocked rats made no reaction upon hearing the sound while the shocked rats would free in fear upon hearing the sound. This suggests that your brain stores sounds that are tied a strong emotion allowing the sound to acquire an emotional meaning, months and years later.

Fool Me Once, Fool Me Twice

This skills allows us to better understand and assess our surroundings. This ability makes us more adaptable as a species; we hear a lions roar and we attempt to evade the sound, a child’s cry for help and we hasten to it. Still, our brains are flawed. We can be tricked into thinking we are hearing certain things based on visual cues or false sound signposts. Animator’s and filmmakers constantly trick us. For example, on screen we may see horses riding over a hill. We hear hooves clopping against the ground and the riders’ gear clanking with each gallop. You may hear it in your head as you read this. Yet, these are just words on a page and the sounds themselves are simply made by one man in a studio.

This NPR story includes great examples of the brain’s susceptibility to being fooled by sounds. Through playing with sounds and expectation, we can create environments or feelings for people that are not actually organic. So as not to spoil the above link, just beware that the sound of rain may not be as relaxing as you think.

It Takes Two (Hearing Aids)

Our relationship with sound is both intimate and instinctual. On the one hand, certain sounds cue us into a reactive state of emotional being, on the other hand sounds can transport us into the sensual recesses of our mind allowing us to feel a strong presence of certain memories. In other words, while glass shattering may put us on edge, making us alert and attentive, Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheese Burger in Paradise” might transport us into the comfortable heat of a July afternoon. Less trivially, sound and music, can allow for deeply meaningful memories of childhood to resurface as very present experiences in our adult lives; proving that the past is truly always with us.

Allow your brains to explore sound thoroughly; each sound we hear, a gift, a contextual clue into the vastness of emotions we have and will experience. Our hearing devices could enhance each sonorous experience, allowing you to actively take part in the world around you both emotionally and physically. Be sure that you are not missing out, find a hearing aid that works for you, and engage with the plentiful and rich sounds that surround you.

By: Michael Strauss
Sources: Live Science , NPR

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